One of the advantages of being old is that you get the sense of perspective that comes with having seen things before. So it is with the attacks on Ash Sarkar and Aaron Bastani for their support for communism.
I’m old enough to remember anti-communists in the 70s and 80s. Which means I remember just how much crass bad faith and hypocrisy they contained. Some of this bad faith was clear at the time, some is more evident with hindsight. Here are seven examples of what I mean:
- They attacked the Soviet Union for its denial of freedoms. But many of them opposed gay rights and “women’s lib”, supported Pinochet and apartheid and to this day are relaxed about coercion within the workplace. The freedom many of them value is the freedom to oppress and dominate others.
- They criticized Marxism for having a crude conception of historical inevitability: Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay on the subject. But they claimed that the Gulags were an inevitable result of Marxism.
- They apply a double standard. Whereas they claim that oppression is an inseparable element of communism, they regard slavery and imperialism as mere accidental features of capitalism. I’m not sure this position is rescued by the fact that capitalism has thrived after the ending of imperialism and slavery. In many cases, imperialism was ended by armed struggle, not by enlightened capitalists realizing it wasn’t in their interests.
- When I was a young idealistic socialist I was told – again by people channelling Berlin – that it was impossible to achieve utopia because there are inescapable trade-offs between fundamental values such as equality and liberty. Some of those same people, however, are now blind to the trade-off Brexit reveals between sovereignty and prosperity: a meaningful free trade deal requires regulatory alignment, but this entails adopting some of other countries’ regulations, which is a loss of sovereignty.
- Again, when I was young, cynical old anti-communists told me that it was impossible to build a substantially better society because the crooked timber of humanity lacked the rationality and knowledge to do so. As Tim Worstall recently said, grand plans don’t work. Oddly, though, such scepticism about state capacity disappeared with Brexit: untangling 40 years of intertwined laws, we were told, would be simple.
- One example cold warriors gave of communism being the enemy of freedom was its attitude to migration: dissidents such as Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn were for years banned from leaving the USSR. These people are not so keen on free movement today, however. Many of those who cheered when Reagan said “tear down this wall” also cheered when Trump proposed building one.
- When they spoke of the Soviet Union, cold warriors claimed that centrally planned economies were a lousy idea. But centrally planned economies are still with us: bosses claim to be able to manage large complex organizations from the top down. Cold warriors are relaxed about this. They’re blind to the fact that if you want a modern example of a Stalinist you should look not among lefties but at men like Fred Goodwin or Philip Green. It’s not good enough to reply here that it someone doesn’t like their employer they can leave. None of us could escape the financial crisis, which was due at least in part to the failure of capitalist Stalinism.
Now, I do not say all this to defend Soviet Communism: it was an abomination. Nor do I decry those east European dissidents who paid a heavy price defending it. Western anti-communists, however, paid no such price. Quite the opposite. For them, anti-communism was and still is a very comfortable part of a defence of inequality in the west. In this sense, we can charge them with another double standard – a very partial reading of Adam Smith. Whilst they are keen to stress the virtues of the invisible hand, they are less keen to heed Smith’s warning that we tend to be too deferential to the rich and powerful:
We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent…The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshippers, of wealth and greatness. (Section 3 Ch III)
Granted, Ash’s idea of communism needs a lot of work. But if I had to choose between her youthful idealism for a better world on the one hand, and smug defenders of an unjust and inefficient existing order on the other, I’ll choose Ash every time. As the woman who inspired my blog’s name sang, “teenagers, kick our butts.”